Poison

This Faux-arty Exercise in self-indulgence won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. Perhaps the judges bought the publicity handed out by the film's writer-director, Todd Haynes, best known for Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an underground curio that used miniatures and Barbie-size dolls to dramatize the singer's losing battle with anorexia. Poison – which boasts live actors – was inspired by the works of Jean Genêt, the outlaw, poet, thief and homosexual who, Haynes says, "always aligned himself with the deviant in society."

Somehow the poetry gets lost in Poison, which tells three fragmented stories, filmed in different styles. "Hero," in which a mother tells a TV crew how her seven-year-old son flew out the window like an angel after murdering his abusive father, is shot like a trashy docudrama. "Horror," in which a scientist tries to isolate the sex drive in a test tube but starts decaying after he accidentally touches the stuff, is done in B-horror-movie fashion. And "Homo," a violent story of unrequited love between two prisoners – featuring a scene in which a group of men expectorate into the open mouth of another man who swallows the spit – has the tinted look of a lurid melodrama.

Like Genêt, Haynes wants to convert transgressive acts into sacred rituals. It's an ambitious scheme, but the film plays like a student thesis. Neither witty, lyric nor shocking enough to have an impact, Poison has only one feature: consistency. It's badly acted, written and directed.

From The Archives Issue 602: April 18, 1991